This is an excerpt from the book One Last Look Around (1947, pp. 200-211) by war correspondent Clark Lee. It tells the story of French-occupied Vietnam in late September 1945 as he experienced it. At that time, Lee, Bill Downs, and Jim McGlincy were part of an airborne correspondent corps in the midst of touring Southeast Asia after World War II.The Buildup to la Guerre d'Indochine
"Free French 6th Commando C.L.I. in Saigon are saluted by surrendered Japanese in November 1945" (source)
ONE LAST LOOK AROUND
They told us what was happening. "The Annamites are revolting. They are willing to die rather than be colonists of France again. British Gurkha troops are opposing the Annamites and the Japs, who were supposed to be disarmed, are helping the British. It's a stinking mess."
The picture in Indo-China was this: Some 23,000,000 of Indo-China's 28,000,000 native inhabitants are Annamites and nearly all of them wanted to end France's eighty-year rule over their homeland, a territory as big as France itself and rich in coal and rice and other agricultural products. They had risen in arms once before in 1929, but the French machine-gunned and bombed them into submission. Now, the Japs had apparently given them their big chance for freedom from a regime whose colonial record was shameful. For instance, after eighty years in the colony, the French had permitted only five per cent of the people to learn to read and write.
Trouble came into Indo-China in 1940 when the Japs shot and bullied their way into the north, ostensibly for the purpose of closing off one of China's last supply routes through the Indo-Chinese port of Haiphong, from which a railroad heads into Chinese Hunnan. A year later, Vichy opened the door to Saigon and the south for the Japs, ignoring the obvious fact that they wanted Saigon as a springboard for their attacks on Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, and for their occupation of Siam. Economic agreements were reached between Tokyo and Vichy for the exchange of Indo-China's rice and metals for Japanese manufactured products. Instead of the 5,000 tons of rice they were getting, the French supplied Tokyo 1,000,000 tons annually to feed the Japanese troops who were shortly to besiege our starving forces in Bataan.
The Vichyites, headed by colonial governor Admiral Jean de Coux, threw in their lot wholeheartedly with Japan and its Axis partners. That their own homeland was in Nazi chains meant nothing to these French Colonials. Their first concern was the preservation of their own interests and for three years—all during Pearl Harbor, Tarawa, Saipan, even the liberation of France—the Japanese occupation forces and the colonial French lived in perfect harmony, collaborating enthusiastically and doing business to their mutual profit.
With the collapse of Vichy, Admiral De Coux took over complete control in Indo-China with the support of the French Fascist, Pétainists, businessmen, and government officials, and the Banque de l'Indo-Chine clique—plus, of course, the Japs. Some Frenchmen and Annamites wanted to resist the Japs and made a brief stab at organizing the underground. They were ruthlessly suppressed by De Coux. Some were exiled to the penal colony of Poulo Condore, where conditions were so bad that they even horrified the Japs. Two Tokyo newspapermen who visited the island described finding 1,500 political prisoners who "were subjected by the French to all conceivable atrocities . . . who stood mute and expressionless like dumb animals."
"The uprising in Hanoi capital on August 19, 1945" (source)
A few French escaped to Allied territory, but not many of them could make the long trek to India or China through the Japanese lines. Not trusting the French Colonials, the United States made no serious effort to get arms to the few resistance leaders.
Major Verger told me, "There was no underground worthy of the name. A very few of the French assisted American aviators to escape after they were shot down, escorting them to the coast where they were picked up by submarines. There was one captain who had a secret radio set and supplied important intelligence information for our planes. Outside of that, I regret to say that my fellow countrymen did nothing to resist the Japanese or assist our forces. There was an army revolt in 1941 against admitting the Japanese to the colony without a struggle, but it was suppressed and the survivors either fled to China, were imprisoned, or abandoned their activities.
The French-Japanese honeymoon ended on March 9, 1945, when the Japanese suddenly surrounded the homes of De Coux and of the French officers and quickly disarmed the 6,000 French troops in southern Indo-China. Simultaneously the French in the north surrendered, and the French men and women were interned.
Then the Japs played their trump card. Knowing that Tokyo would surrender shortly and that the end for them was not far off, they permitted the Annamites to form their own government to replace the French regime. A coalition government of Communists and Nationalists was set up with branches in Hanoi and Saigon, and was promised complete independence by the Japanese. When Tokyo surrendered, the Japanese gave the Annamites some arms and told them to carry on with their government and defend their independence. Meantime, all during the war, the United States and the provisional government of France had been sparring about the future of Indo-China. Roosevelt fought the churlish De Gaulle and the stubborn Churchill for a new status for all Asiatic colonies. For Indo-China he wanted an international trusteeship to pave the way for total freedom. But as soon as he was dead, Truman and Byrnes forgot his desires and concentrated on the "get tough with Russia" game to the oblivion of such trifling matter as freedom for a hundred million Asiatic peoples. During their wartime discussions, the French indicated their willingness to grant freedom "within the Indo-Chinese federation and French union, plus recognition of democratic liberties for all and education in native and French culture." But De Gaulle and other officials made it clear that France renounced none of her Far Eastern possessions.
The situation was further complicated int the north by Chinese claims to the Tonkin area, which blocks Yunnan province's only convenient doorway to the outside world. Some 400,000 lived there and most of them looked to Chungking for guidance. With the end of the war, Chinese troops moved down from Yunnan into Tonkin and by Allied agreement occupied all of Indo-China north of the 16th parallel. But when the French tried to move their own armed forces into the area in March 1946, again by Chinese-French agreement, Chinese forces around the port of Haiphong fired on their landing craft and warships. After finally getting ashore, the French found that the Chinese had not ousted the Annamite officials but had strengthened their position.
When we reached Saigon in October, 1945, the Annamites were still occupying the government buildings from which they had officially functioned since August 17th, when the Japanese installed them in complete power. They called their government the Viet Nam Republic, substituting that pre-colonial name for Indo-China, a French importation.
"Now," said Colonel Dewey on our first night in Saigon, "the British troops are driving them out. The Annamites are determined people and it is taking a lot of shooting."
The British commander, General D. D. Gracey, a self-proclaimed Tory and believer in Empire, was willing to use whatever means necessary to restore white supremacy and try to rebuild the shattered self-confidence of the French. In negotiations with the Viet Nam prior to the landing of British troops, the British assured the Annamites that Gracey's mission was to disarm the Japanese and restore order. The Annamites were foolish enough to believe that story. Instead of carrying out the promise, Gracey returned the Japanese troops to their posts, allowed them to keep their arms, and used them to attack the Annamites who were likewise using Japanese arms when they had any at all beyond sticks, clubs, and spears. Thus, as was to be the case in the Dutch East Indies, the British used their former enemies, the Japanese, to shoot down other Asiatics. If the Japanese were planning a comeback in later years in their "Asia for Asiatics" campaign, they could not have asked for better propaganda ammunition.
Gracey's defense was: "What do you want? Do you think we will surrender European supremacy to the first group of outlaws that point guns at us?" In other words, the words not only of Gracey, but of his superior officers and the London Labour government, defend the Imperial system and the hell with these outlaws who believe in the Four Freedoms.
The French who saw us at first in Saigon cheered enthusiastically for the arrival of "les soldats Américains." They said openly, "Now we can put these Annamite beggars back in their places." They were crestfallen when we told them we weren't troops, but correspondents, and that no American forces were coming to the colony.
General Douglas Gracey
Actually, the American "forces" consisted of Colonel Dewey and his mission, plus a group of eight Air Transport Command personnel headed by Major Frank Rhoades. Dewey jumped from a transport plane into Saigon right after V-J Day and quickly got the 136 American war prisoners out of their camps and headed home. Then, instead of leaving, he got mixed up in a game that was too fast for him. "I am remaining to protect American property," he explained. What property? He had hung out the American flag from the offices of Standard Oil, Texaco, and Singer Sewing Machine. Also, he had intervened dramatically a few days before when Annamites had prepared to storm the Continental Hotel and threatened to kill the French people sheltered there. Dewey had bluffed the Annamites into believing the hotel was American property, exhibiting a "bill of sale" made over to him by the Corsican manager, and had waved the American flag to turn back the would-be attackers. Tragically enough, it was the lack of an American flag on his jeep that caused his death.
The British were more concerned in talking to us about the A.T.C. mission than about Dewey's. The A.T.C. men were under orders to set up a base on a line from Shanghai to Singapore, a "temporary line to operate for a limited time." The British found that hard to swallow. "I understand," General Gracey told us, "that the A.T.C. is establishing a line to carry letters. Who the letters are from or what necessity there is for carrying them, I do not know." It was the suspicion of the British and French that far from being temporary the American base was to be used by future American globe-girdling airlines. Since then, the Civil Aeronautics Bureau in Washington has licensed American routes to Indo-China and Siam.
If our arrival was a disappointment to the French, it was even more so to the Annamites. Like all of the people of Asia they looked to Americans in the first weeks after the surrender as true liberators and believed in democracy for everybody, everywhere. They hoped the United States would guarantee their freedom. They knew the French would not give an inch more than they had to, despite the "liberal" promises of De Gaulle and his henchmen. If there had been any doubt in the minds of the Annamites about the French, it disappeared when the colonial overlords were released from internment after the Japanese surrender.
Feeling their oats once more, the French resumed their old habit of kicking around—literally—the despised natives. This was a grave mistake, because the French were not strong enough to get away with it pending the arrival of reinforcements of guns, tanks, rifles and hand grenades. Then the Annamites turned back on them and suddenly the French realized that they were dealing with people who were willing to give their lives to demonstrate to the world their desire for freedom. The Annamites were still fighting when the vanguard of British troops came in, and it was at this stage of the struggle that we reached Indo-China.
The Japanese just stood by and chuckled while the Annamites turned their arms on the French, kidnapped and killed many of the most hated of their tormentors, and drove the terrified Colonials out of their suburban homes and into a narrow section of Saigon paralleling the Rue Catinat. Inside the city the Annamites quit their jobs. Most of them faded away into the countryside, hiding in villages which the British troops attacked and burned in reprisal for attacks on their supply lines. The city, stripped of ninety per cent of its populace, was paralyzed. We found the water supply off, the lights working only fitfully. To the disgust of the French, who for years had been accustomed to regard their servants as pieces of furniture, the servants disappeared. There were no rickshaws in the streets, no public transportation of any kind.
Along the Rue Catinat and the small "safe" area surrounding it, the French gathered in little worried knots. They were ashamed of their war record, their cooperation with the Japs, their inability to do anything now about the Annamite uprising. The men huddled in the cafes, unwilling even to take rifles and go out and protect the city. They shouted for more help—Japs, Gurkhas, Americans, it didn't matter—and they plotted how they would avenge themselves on the Annamites when their turn came.
The Rue Catinat in Saigon, October 1945. Photo by John Florea (source)
Starting at seven in the morning, the French came out to parade up and down the Rue Catinat, stopping at the sidewalk cafes for an apéritif of anisette, ice, and water. At eleven they went into the few restaurants still open, but soon to close, and ate heartily for two hours and then disappeared for a siesta. About four in the afternoon, people started to emerge again and an hour before dusk everyone had gathered either in the candle-lit lobby of the Continental Hotel or on the sidewalk outside. We learned a new line there. All around the world, in Sicily, Italy, France, Germany, Egypt, the Philippines, Japan, young kids had approached us with outstretched hands and pronounced the local equivalent of "cigarette pour papa." In Saigon, Frenchmen stopped us on the street and, too ashamed to ask for themselves, begged, "A cigarette for my wife."
It was pitiful to watch the French when the sound of shooting was heard. One night a platoon of Japanese ran up on the double to take sentry positions outside the hotel, and there was a panicked rush for inside. Another night Annamites set fire to the market place four blocks from Continental. The French, silent and terrified, refused to go near the fire—even though the supply of food was growing scantier every day—but the Chinese stall owners made frantic and futile efforts to drench the flame with small splashes of water from leaking buckets. Most of the time there weren't any lights, and in the confusion of that pushing mass around the hotel, more than one Frenchwoman wound up in the room of an English officer or correspondent. Despite this amateur competition, the bright-looking half-caste girls roaming the Rue Catinat did a big business.
During one outbreak of shooting, the owner of the Continental called us into his office for an apéritif with him and some friends.
"Why," they demanded in an aggrieved tone, "do you not protect us from those devil Annamites?"
We baited them, "This is not the quarrel of Americans. For all we know, justice is on the side of the rebels. We hear that the French have been inexcusably cruel to them. In fact, we would just as soon shoot French as Annamites." This last remark was accompanied by an ostentatious fingering of carbine triggers.
"Ah, monsieurs," the hotel owned gushed, "it is quite right that you are. All of us in this room are not French. You are surprised, no? The fact that we do not come from Metropolitan France. We are Corsicans. This local political squabble is not of our making, but the fault of the French who have treated the Annamites inconsiderately."
Meantime, Frenchman and Corsican alike continued to plan for vengeance. They got it after the French troops under irascible General Jacques LeClerq finally arrived to take over behind Gurkha and Japanese guns. Witnesses later described the long lines of Annamite prisoners, manacled or trussed up, being marched down the Rue Catinat to the filthy jail, where they were fed miserably, given drumhead trials lasting a few minutes and then sentenced to many years at hard labor on Poulo Condore Island—or even condemned to die for distributing leaflets asking for independence. In this and other ways, the French finally got retribution for the humiliation that we watched them undergo.
At night, Annamites would slip into the city, set fire to the power plant and other buildings, and shoot off their rifles. The harassed Gracey was unable to stop them with his small force, whose forays into the countryside and across the river to the Chinese quarter proved fruitless. He blamed the Japs for his troubles, accusing them of instigating the Annamites to fight, and at the same time he called on the Japs to assist him in putting down the fighting. In desperation, the British commander visited the home of the aged and ailing Japanese field marshal, Count Terauchi, and warned him that unless the Japs behaved themselves they "would not be sent back home to Japan." Gracey pointed out that the Allied plan was to repatriate the Japs in Nipponese shipping. Very few bottoms were available, Gracey said, and he threatened that unless Terauchi saw to it that his troops were good boys, no ships would come to Indo-China for them. This provided another big laugh for the Japs, who didn't care very much either way whether they stayed or went—after all, it was France that wanted the colony back.
Meantime, the fighting was getting sharper every night and more and more factories and homes were being burned by the Annamites. On the third night of our stay, Captain Joe Coolidge, a distant relative of the late Calvin and Colonel Dewey's No. 2 in the O.S.S., was shot through the throat and arm while escorting a group of French women and children through an Annamite barricade.
We got word of it through Colonel Dewey, who sent for us to come to his room at the Continental. Perhaps it was premonition that made Dewey talk at length about something that was on his mind. He had been doing a great deal of running around in the midst of the fighting, and had found the Annamites friendly when they discovered him to be American. "It's the French they're after. Not us, nor even the British. They won't shoot at the Japanese at all." Dewey's difficulty was to identify himself as an American. "I had an American flag on my jeep, he said, "but General Gracey forbade me to fly it. When I go up to one of the barricades, there is always a chance that the Annamites will kill me before I can identify myself."
Several of us stormed up to see Gracey and protest against his refusal to allow the American flag to be flown from automobiles. "I cannot permit it," he said. "That is a privilege of general officers only." If you chose to be strict about it—and Gracey did, for obvious reasons of European and Imperial prestige—the British general was correct in his position, according to military regulations. He went on to say that he had no objections to flags being painted on jeeps and cars, which was a meaningless concession in view of the total absence of paint in Saigon. Likewise, he agreed to flags being tied to the side of vehicles, but that was no assistance whatever since the important thing was to be recognized well before you drove up to a barricade, and a flag on the side was not visible from a distance.
The following day Colonel Dewey invited two of our party, Bill Downs and Jim McGlincy, to lunch at the O.S.S. house on the northern edge of Saigon. They drove out with Major Verger and with Captain Frank White, a member of the nine-man O.S.S. mission, and sat in the patio to have a drink and wait for Dewey to return from the airport.
"Ho Chi Minh (center) and Vo Nguyen Giap (far left) with American OSS agents planning coordinated action against the Japanese - 1945" (source)
Five minutes later there was heavy firing up the road, and an American officer came running toward the O.S.S. villa which was also, in effect, American Army headquarters in Saigon. The officer halted every few yards to crouch and fire his .45 back down the road at some invisible pursuers.
Hurriedly, Captain White issued carbines to the correspondents and to the other four men in the house, and they got behind the garden wall and fired at a crowd of Annamites who suddenly came into sight pursuing the American. The Annamites took cover—there were about a hundred of them—and the officer staggered into the yard behind the protective wall. He was Major Herbert Bluechel. His neck, shoulders, and most of his body was covered with blood and he appeared to be seriously wounded.
"They got the colonel," he gasped hysterically. "They killed the colonel."
The blood on Bluechel was Dewey's blood. The two Americans had been passing a barricade in their jeep. Dewey gestured to the Annamites ahead to remove the crisscrossed trees forming the road block, but they suddenly opened fire with a machine gun. The colonel's head was blown off. Bluechel, unharmed, jumped out of the jeep and sprinted frantically up the road.
"What a pity," Bluechel exclaimed. "The Annamites liked Dewey and he liked them and he believed they should be free. If they had only recognized us as Americans, they would never have shot."
Meanwhile, the Annamites began pushing toward the house. The Americans ran inside and took positions at the windows. Like Dewey, they did not want to kill Annamites, but they were being fired upon and there was no choice except to shoot back. Yelling and shouting, the Annamites advanced down a drainage ditch parallel to the road, pausing from time to time to fire their guns. They were bad marksmen and although their bullets bounced off the house, none of the Americans was hit.
Spacing their shots, the Americans picked off the attacking men. Three fell as they tried to run across an open field. Several others were wounded. Bill Downs shot down at least one man, and he says that the sight of the little brown figure falling will haunt him for years. But blood was being shed, hysteria had taken command, and there was no chance to stop and argue things out.
Briefly, the Annamites retired, and then returned with a machine gun. They fired one burst into the front of the house and then ceased fire. In this interlude a jeep with three more O.S.S. men drove squarely down the road without drawing a single shot, and turned into the yard. Meanwhile, six Japanese sentries who were on duty guarding the villa had taken a casual part in the fighting, firing once or twice but mostly just crouching out of the way.
After more than two hours of skirmishing, the Annamites began to withdraw, and McGlincy and Downs volunteered to walk across the field and try to reach the airport in search of reinforcements. They took their sidearms for defense, a bottle of "Old Crow" for courage, and on the theory that nobody would shoot at a singing man they walked along caroling at the top of their voices, "For he's a jolly good fellow." They made it to the airfield without trouble and dispatched a message for help. Then the two correspondents, with Major Rhoades of the A.T.C., drove back in a jeep through the Annamite positions, where a group were picking up wounded under a Red Cross flag. The Americans waved their arms and shouted, "Chee-Wee, Chee-Wee," which means American in the Annamite tongue.
Back at the house, the Americans decided to go out after Dewey's body. Major Verger took the precaution of changing his French army shirt for an American jacket. He tied a white handkerchief to his carbine and waved as the jeep gingerly approached the Annamite positions. "Where is the commandant?" McGlincy demanded of the sentries.
An excited young man—in civilian shirt and shorts like the other fighters for freedom—stepped forward and delivered a fiery speech on liberty and the rights of man, intermingled with violent protests against the Americans, who loved liberty, killing Annamites who sought it. Another young Annamite, about sixteen or seventeen, assisted in translating the leader's discourse.
Downs explained, "We would like to get Colonel Dewey's body."
There were lengthy negotiations, and finally the commander agreed to return Dewey's body if the Americans would bring back the bodies of the Annamite casualties. These terms were accepted. The Americans drove back to the scene of the battle, picked up three bodies, and piled them on the hood of the jeep.
When they returned to the barricade, the Annamite leader became even more violently excited. "Three for one is not fair exchange," he protested through the interpreter.
"Where is Colonel Dewey's body?" Downs asked.
"It is not here," the young man said. "I cannot go through with this agreement when you ask three for one." The Americans insisted that they had kept their part of the bargain.
The negotiations were broken up suddenly by the sound of firing. A group of Gurkhas were coming down the road, shooting off their rifles and driving before them a terrified group of native refugees, mostly women and children. The Annamites at the barricade glared at the Americans, as if they suspected that the negotiations had been a trap to hold them until the Gurkhas arrived. Then they faded away into the woods and behind nearby houses.
Dewey's body was never recovered. For months afterward the French used the missing American's body—the body of a man who believed they should be free—as a bargaining point against the natives. They refused to enter discussions until the body was produced and the Viet Nam government even offered a reward for the corpse.
Reports of Dewey's death in his flagless jeep—there had been a flag but it was wrapped around a pole and thus unidentifiable—quickly reached Lord Louis Mountbatten in Singapore as our stories went out. He sent an urgent message to General Gracey to fly down to Singapore and report on the incident, and the general asked for a lift in our B-25, which had returned after making a trip to Calcutta to pick up equipment for our crippled B-17. As we drove to the airport, we passed through a deathly quiet mile of no-man's land, with torn trees and the bodies of animals on the road—souvenirs of the Gurkhas drive the day before. Native villages along the road were aflame, and here and there Frenchmen crouched behind the stone walls of fine villas. Every few hundred yards there was a Japanese soldier with a rifle and a bayonet—unconcernedly guarding our route. Our own carbines and pistols were cocked as we peered over the sides of the truck.
Throughout the night there had been the sound of drums and shouting from the perimeter around the city and sporadically the noise of shots smashing into buildings. Circling over the city in the B-17 we counted a half dozen large fires, several of them quite close to the besieged Rue Catinat. These fires were symbolic funeral pyres of many natives, for the French came back in with American arms and with the help of the British engaged in bloodletting and slaughter. But eventually they would be the signal fires of freedom.